A lot of people were interested in our young guys, but we didn't want to trade our kids... the goal was not to give up the kids.
- Rangers G.M. Glen Sather
The trade deadline has passed yet for all intents and purposes the trade lines were dead for days. There will be no 1st line center in New York, not for now at least. No hopes for a miracle run either, as the heroic shoulders meant to carry us there never arrived. Then again, such optimism is the stuff of dreamers; we are far more than one man away from a rise to the top.
Yet it feels as though a stage has ended, an era has come to a close. There has been no announcement of surrender but we all know the white flag is indeed waving in the hearts and minds of our organization's leaders. Yet we lead our 2011 to the butcher with a smile, knowing the sacrifice of today will only bring us a better tomorrow.
A first line center is one of two parts the Rangers are lacking. But the other cannot be identified by position, body type or ability. It is something far more intangible, nothing less than time itself. We have already discussed New York's bright future in this space, but even the present team has room to grow, as one year of experience becomes two, two becomes three, and inexperience turns to excellence. Yet time is also the Rangers biggest enemy, as veteran core players, most notably Henrik Lundqvist, will soon hit the back nine of their careers. It creates what has come to be known as the window of opportunity, a fleeting moment in hockey history when everything comes together for a team. Miss the window and the agony of defeat continues on for decades.
There is not much more to discuss on a macro level. What's done is done, and until the painful days of early summer pass there is no more to be done. The challenge and focus now becomes the here and now. Yet this current team's goal is almost as hard to define as it is for them to hit. Is a playoff berth an acceptable fate? Would a trip to the conference semifinals be enough? Or is anything short of a Cup considered a disappointment?
Consider this: Since the lockout, every Stanley Cup Champion had reached the conference finals in the previous year. This is no coincidence. Teams build off of their previous success. Winning clearly creates confidence among players, and even more so, the taste of being so close to their goal motivates them to further success. To prove this point further, only one team since the lockout reached the conference finals the year after winning the Cup. In fact, two of the four teams did not even win a playoff round. Now this data may seem contradictory but its actually easily explained.
It comes down to the fact that hockey is a grueling sport with a long regular season and a playoff format that is conducive to extreme physicality.
Even if you do stay healthy throughout the year, you are in pain. So much of success in this sport is built on mental toughness, the willingness of players to torture their bodies to reach hockey immortality. So when a team feels it is right close to the finish line, its players are strong enough to give it the extra push. On the other hand, if a team just won it the year before, the hunger is going to be lacking and they probably won't have what it takes. Gone are the years of pre-lockout dynasties. We are on to the era of parity, where effort is going to be a big factor in deciding success.
This is not to say that effort alone wins championships. The Rangers practically define effort yet a lot is left to be desired in the winning department. But if the Rangers do arrive at a high level of talent, one way or another, they need to be ready to work. Ready to work despite the talent. A downfall of the team over the past few years has seemed to be a lack of hunger during the good times. The players forget that it was hard work that led to success, hubris takes a stranglehold and we end up with a losing and lazy product. If a Brad-Richards-type ends up on Broadway next season it may be even harder to keep up the intensity; the team may try to skate by on talent alone. But gentlemen, we won't have enough talent to win on talent alone. No team does. And that is the beauty of modern day hockey.
And the question is answered. We all know the window of opportunity is fast approaching. It will not last long.
The purpose of the seasons leading up to the window is to build confidence and to build hunger. If this team, a team that works hard every night, does not make the playoffs, it will be a crushing blow. After 164 games with no results, it will be nigh impossible to grind through 82 more and 16 wins on top of that. We are already seeing Lundqvist slip away at times, giving in to the frustrations that have followed him his entire career. How much longer will he, and the others, remain confident? How much longer until some players start to give up and look to go elsewhere. Not long, that I can promise you. So we need to get something, anything.
Or else all the talent in the world will not save us.